Saying Goodbye to the Old Year: a look at three Stone Age Tools


As we close out 2017 and look forward to 2018, I’d like to take a look at long, long ago,
to a time relatively unknown to us today, and mostly forgotten, but which in fact
represents the majority of the time of human existence on the planet earth; the Stone Age.
Human beings have been on this earth for over 2 million years, and we know very little
about this long and important period, it is truly prehistoric. Modern thinking about this
period of man’s existence is changing from that of man being in a hobbesian state, in
which, “the life of man, (was) solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.”, to one where the
hunter gatherer life was actually quite good. The wonderful book, Sapiens, a brief history
of Humankind, by Yuval Noah Harari, sums up much of this new thinking in a highly
readable manner. The fossil evidence shows that individuals then had more leisure time
and better nutrition and overall health than seen in the early agricultural societies. This
surprising turn of thought casts a new light on some of the only material objects we have
from this long period, stone tools. Knapped, they were created by striking one rock
against another to chip off flakes to form cutting and scraping tools, usually using flint,
and later obsidian as well. The earliest tools are truly old, but the dating is quite
imprecise because the form and type remains fairly constant for a very long time. Thus
the early flints are dated from 200,000 to 100,000 years ago, and the dating gets more
exact the closer to our time it is as the forms and types change much more quickly and we
can thus date them more precisely.
The three flints I talk about here range from the Paleolithic,that is old Stone Age, which
ranges from 2.6 million years to 10,000 years ago, to modern Stone Age, that is with the
last 1,000 years. The two Paleolithic examples here are about 100,000 years old from
Africa, one found in the Saharan desert, another from the earliest periods of Egyptian
culture. The later piece is from the new world, Aztec, from Mexico, which despite the
incredible sophistication of their culture and art, remained in essence Stone Age in that
they never used metal tools. The rather simple form of the early Egyptian example,
speaks to its early date, but it would have been a very functional tool regardless. The
more elegant leaf shape of the yellow flint Saharan hand ax is actually a quite early and
wide spread tool type, with the round bottom being suitable to being held in the hand and
the pointy end used for cutting. The Aztec sacrificial blade in contrast is quite beautifully
knapped with an elegant and thin form, using much smaller blows to shape it, allowing
for much greater control. The Mesoamericans brought flint knapping to its highest level
of technical skill, and their lack of metal tools did not get in the way of their creating
some of the most evolved and intellectually accomplished cultures that ever existed on
planet earth.
Taken as simply objects these flints are beautiful for their abstract forms, their material
and texture, worthy of being admired for their aesthetic qualities. As material links to our
earliest human past, they are reminders of our evolution of as a species and early culture.